Random Samples

Science  11 Nov 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5750, pp. 968

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  1. The State of Africa's Lakes


    The U.N. Environment Programme has assembled a dismaying picture of the degradation of Africa's 677 lakes. Last week, it introduced a new Atlas of African Lakes at the World Lake Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Above, satellite images show Lake Songor Lagoon in Ghana, which has lost volume and biodiversity between 1990 (left) and 2000 (right) due in part to salt mining.

  2. Hellenistic Engineering

    Mystery planetarium reconstructed. CREDIT: MICHAEL WRIGHT

    Last month in Athens, scientists unveiled a working model of a mysterious instrument discovered a century ago in the ruins of a 2000-year-old Greek shipwreck.

    Found as a crusted bronze mass in the cargo of a ship that sank off the island of Antikythera, the instrument, dubbed the “Antikythera Mechanism,” was a jumble of gears and dials encased in a wooden box.

    Yale University science historian Derek de Solla Price puzzled for many years over the instrument. After x-raying it, he concluded in 1974 that it was designed to compute solar and lunar cycles. He described some 30 bronze gears that required a differential turntable to coordinate them—which would have been a revolutionary technology for the time.

    In 1989, engineer Michael Wright, now at Imperial College London, and Sydney University computer scientist Allan Bromley applied more advanced imaging technology to determine the level of each wheel and gear within the mass. They showed that Price's inclusion of a differential gear was incorrect. Bromley's death interrupted the work, but in 2002, Wright started again on a reconstruction. His complete working model, unveiled at the Second Conference on Ancient Greek Technology in Athens, demonstrates that the mechanism included a complete planetarium, showing the orbits, or epicycles as the Greeks called them, of not only the sun and moon but also the five planets known to the Greeks: Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury. The instrument shows that intricate geared mechanisms were “an accepted element of Hellenistic technology,” says Wright.

  3. Latest in Translation


    Grad student Stan Jou was mouthing Mandarin Chinese, but no sounds issued from his mouth. Instead, a robotic voice from a speaker spoke for him, using inputs from electrodes glued to his cheeks and throat. The words, in English or Spanish, were part of a press conference last week at which computer scientist Alex Waibel of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and others showed off their latest toys for speech recognition and translation.

    The electrodes on Jou's face picked up movements of his face and throat muscles. Software turned them into words, which were then translated. So far, the system can only recognize about 15 phrases. But Waibel predicts that someday people will be able to have face-to-face conversations in alien tongues without the sounds of their original words getting in the way.

    The researchers are also developing goggles displaying simultaneous translations of a talk. And they've built directed speakers that can pinpoint a person in a crowd and deliver a translation as if it were being whispered in the ear. Waibel's software for translating spoken language is some of the best in the world, says Satoshi Nakamura of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Japan, but he doubts such a program will make it to the marketplace in this decade.

    Some of this technology could require more-or-less permanent attachments to the listener. But, says Waibel, “I think someday people will accept having a few electrodes implanted in their cheek.”

  4. Who's No. 1?

    Britain's Royal Society launched two polls this week—an online one for the public and one for scientists—on whether Einstein or Newton is “the greatest scientific heavyweight of all time.” Results will be announced at an “Einstein vs. Newton debate” in London on 23 November.

    According to Royal Society vice president Martin Taylor, the society is hoping the contest will inspire British students, whose interest in physics has “reached a historical low.” Vote at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/.

  5. Awards


    Inspiring tales. In the quest to explore Earth and other planets, firing imaginations may be as important as firing rockets. That's why the Planetary Society is honoring two nonscientists at its 25th anniversary celebration this week: writer Ray Bradbury, who has transported readers to the planets in The Martian Chronicles and other works, and filmmaker James Cameron, who directed the blockbuster Titanic and has taken viewers for otherworldly tours of the ocean floors in his documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep.

    The 85-year-old Bradbury will receive the Thomas O. Paine Memorial Award for the Advancement of Human Exploration of Mars. Previous winners include members of the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor missions. “There was a lot of intelligent imagination in what he wrote,” says Wesley Huntress, president of the society and director of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., who credits Bradbury's writings for inspiring him to become a space scientist.Cameron, 51, will receive the society's inaugural Cosmos Award for Outstanding Public Presentation of Science.

  6. On Campus


    Team effort. Virginia Tech materials scientist Brian Love and his students are helping the college's star running back stay in the limelight.

    On 7 October, Cedric Humes, the starting tailback on the Blacksburg university's undefeated and number-3-ranked football team, broke his right forearm in a game against Marshall University. The team's athletic trainer, Mike Goforth, called Love (inset) to see if he could devise a cast better than the padded fiberglass model that would have left Humes unable to feel the football in his arms and increased his likelihood of fumbling. Love challenged his students to come up with an alternative. Using moldable carbon fiber plastics often used for pelvic fractures, Humes's doctors fashioned a brace that covered just the outside of the athlete's forearm.

    Three weeks after the injury, Humes was back on the field, carrying the ball 13 times without a fumble to help the Hokies to a 30-10 victory over Boston College. The splint is so strong, “I think you could drive a car over it,” Goforth says. Humes plans to thank Love and his students with a signed game ball.

  7. A Life In Science

    Total immersion. Nanotech pioneer Richard Smalley, who died 28 October, did not view any task as beneath him, says chemist Jim Heath of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Even when he was famous, he would sweep the floors if he thought it would help to get the science done. Once, somebody dropped a screwdriver into a huge vacuum chamber—the same one that was used for the discovery of C60. The screwdriver handle dissolved in the oil [at the bottom of the chamber], so the chamber had to be cleaned out. [It] was about 10 feet [3 m] high and could only be accessed through a hole in the top. Rick and I had to strip down to our underwear and take turns holding each other by the ankles and lowering the other into the chamber to clean it out.”

  8. Misconduct

    Pressure to publish. A former postdoc who falsified images in a paper has been banned from receiving U.S. research funding for 3 years. The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Research Integrity in September found Xiaowu Li guilty of scientific misconduct for passing off images of mouse melanoma cells as human pancreatic cancer cells in a paper published online March 2004 in Carcinogenesis.

    Li was working under cancer researcher Daniel Ramos at the University of California, San Francisco. Ramos says he was unaware of the publication, which Li wrote with a group of researchers in China, and was initially upset that he hadn't been asked to be a co-author. But once he recognized the false images, which were taken from his own lab, he contacted university officials. By then, Li had left the university to work at China's Southwestern Hospital in Chongqing, where some of his co-authors are based.

    Ramos says the results of other experiments he performed with Li appear to be valid. He says Li told him during the investigation that the pressure to compile an impressive research record drove him to commit misconduct. (Science was unable to contact Li.) “It kills me,” Ramos says. “He was good—he didn't need to do something like this.”

  9. Nonprofit World

    Fueling science. John Browne, an oil magnate with an interest in research, will be the next president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

    Now group chief executive of British Petroleum, Browne oversaw the merger of BP and Amoco in 1998 and has drawn attention to climate-change risks. Last year, he wrote that “global warming is real and … we should start taking the small steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions today.” (BP says it cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10% between 1998 and 2001.) Browne, 57, who has an undergraduate degree in physics and a master's degree in business, will take the helm of the 174-year-old association next September, succeeding Frances Cairncross.